“Schools Don’t Matter; Families Do.”

In 1966, following the civil rights movement, we took a vital step to create equal educational opportunity for all children.

We commissioned the massive Coleman Report, the biggest study ever done on American public schools, to understand what factors really contributed to student achievement. To the researchers’ surprise, they found little association with school resources, and a substantial association with family background. The results were popularly summarized, “Schools don’t matter; families do.”

But educators had no idea of what to do about families, nor any inclination of finding out what they could do. So like the guy who loses his keys outside, but looks for them in the house because “it’s too dark out there,” they ignored the study and families and woodenly continued to focus on reforming what they knew about schools.

So today, we have a hugely expensive educational system of even lesser quality than before, with the same stubborn inequalities—predictable when you spend 46 years stuck in the wrong solution.

Further, since 1966, we have seen and worried about the achievement gap in schools. But again our focus has been wrong.  The gap is less about schools than about families.

And where is that gap to be found in families? Essentially between two-parent and one-parent families.

Ten years ago, A Brookings Institution Study reported: “Children fare best in two-parent families, next best in divorced families, and worst in families where the mother has never married,” further stating,  “Almost 75% of American children living in single-parent families will experience poverty before they turn 11 years old, but only 20% of children in two-parent families will.”

Typically, one-parent households lack a father. Here are some disturbing statistics:

  • 90% of homeless and runaway children are from fatherless homes. (US Department H.H.S., Bureau of the Census)
  • 85% of all youths in prison come from fatherless homes (Fulton Co. Georgia, Department of Correction)
  • 71% of all high school dropouts come from fatherless homes (National Principals Association Report)
  • 71% of pregnant teenagers lack a father. (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services)

Keep in mind we are also seeing here the lack of stability of the one-parent home.

The basic concern of the race-based achievement gap in schools is that it gives black students fewer opportunities in college and life. But instead, let’s indicate the gap between single-parent white and black families and then compare how they fare in terms of college degrees and family income. I have added a comparison with Asian single-parent families for emphasis:

Single-parent families College degrees Median family income
African Americans 66% 13.6% $33,300
White Americans 24% 25.5% $48,500
Asian Americans 16% 42.9% $59,000


Two-thirds of black families are struggling with the problems of the single parent family, producing a lower level of college degrees and family income.

Our schools must address families in order to ensure that they have the necessary foundation to succeed in school and life.

Asian families (a culture that, like many others, began largely in the U.S. as immigrants in poverty and experienced prejudice) have the lowest percentage of single families outperform white families, both in college and financially.

The same is true for white families. In 2004, only 16% of “white collar” white parents with college degrees were in single-parent homes; 52% of “blue collar” white parents without college degrees were in single-parent homes.

These statistics back up the Coleman Report and show that the black-white achievement gap in school is not occurring primarily from what is happening at school, but more specifically because of the one-parent family gap at home.

The headline of a recent newspaper article read: Minority pupils punished more harshly. It reported racial bias in schools—such as black students being three times more likely to be suspended or expelled than white students.

Of course, there is bias in our schools, as there is in our society. But generally speaking, students from one-parent families—blacks 66%; whites 24% ─ are bringing more problems to schools than students of two-parent families. The article fails to note that their statistics indicate another ethnic minority group, Asian/Pacific Islanders (16% one-parent families,) were half as likely to be suspended or expelled as white students.

I have taught for 60 years and worked with thousands of families from a wide variety of backgrounds. While I’ve seen some unusual family make-ups work, I believe that, overall, a family with two married parents is by far the most successful way to raise children.

Why? Because it takes a profound humility to raise children to fulfill their potential. The act of marriage is an act of humility—a commitment to share one’s life with another. The decision then to have children is built not on the two individuals, but on this bond, which creates a deeper, profound humility and a larger sense of purpose in life.

Assuming a reasonably healthy marriage, children grow up feeling this larger sense of purpose, and how deeply it becomes part of the family culture — which includes preparation for life — largely determines how well the children will take to school. Children who internalize a deeper inner family structure tend to view school as helping them fulfill this larger sense of purpose.

The difficulty of the one-parent household is that without a bond on which to build, child-rearing must be built on the single parent, making the profound humility almost impossible. Whereas in the two-parent family the bond centers the family, the single parent must herself become the stabilizer.

Parents are the primary teachers and the home the primary classroom. Parents instill their children with a sense of purpose, work ethic, values, basic character, attitudes and demeanor—the foundation for their success in school.

Without a partner with whom to share the responsibility of child-raising, it is very difficult for a parent to fully pursue her own destiny, and to thus model for the child how to work through struggles while going after personal excellence. The parent herself must model the larger sense of purpose while still primarily focusing on the child, which requires a heroic journey in life to do it alone.

Noting that one-parent families are often the product of poverty and other circumstances, and that they can be heroic, while two-parent families can be very dysfunctional, we still have a crucial misunderstanding of how to help all children succeed.

In short, our schools must address families, especially one-parent families, to ensure they have the necessary foundation to succeed in school and life. Just as the two-parent family and student form a tripod, so can the school provide the missing leg to the one-parent family and student, thus creating security.

Once the school commits itself to this role, two-parent families will also benefit as school becomes a powerful resource for all families. And once schools make the commitment to work with families, I absolutely know they can develop the expertise to work with and support all families. Let me share my own story:

I founded Hyde School in Bath, ME, boarding school that teaches family-based character education, in 1966 to explore a better way to prepare kids for life, based on the development of the unique potential and character of each student. But in tracing the progress of our graduates, I realized in 1974 the biggest factor in their later success was their parents and family.

So we said to parents, “We’ll help you raise your kids,” and began a program to regularly address parental growth and family issues.

Today Hyde is a network of 7 private and public schools, serving 2,600 students across our private boarding and public charter systems. 80% of Hyde students are members of ethnic minority groups; 97% matriculate to college. In all of our schools, parents are considered the primary teachers and the home is the primary classroom.

We seek to create a family-school community, in which all members participate in helpful seminars designed to help teachers and parents lead by example. This leads students to learn how to expect the best in each other, which in turn creates a positive peer culture.

Teachers serve as advisors to families; parents and families become an integral part of the educational process. Students trust our parent-teacher-student bond, and our bond puts an end to  “we-they” relationships, while effectively dealing with behaviors like cheating and bullying.

As we look back at the Coleman Report, our nation must come to this realization:

We sought to improve the student and we ignored the family. We failed to appreciate that parents are the primary teachers and the home the primary classroom. Parents instill their children with a sense of purpose, work ethic, values, basic character, attitudes and demeanor—the foundation for their success in school.

In general, we will not make lasting changes in this foundation without the involvement and support of the parents.

A family-school partnership would enable schools to build on and develop this vital foundation. This mean that, on one hand, schools need to be sensitive to the unique nature of families, and on the other to be able to effectively challenge that foundation—as well as each family—when it is holding a student’s progress back.

Students praised for their effort outperform those praised for being smart.

If our schools and families are going to be successful, they will need to have this common purpose and partnership. Schools would bring a new stability and strength to families and families would bring a new richness and spirit to schools. It would raise the stature of both.

We can create a truly outstanding educational system if we have the courage to learn and employ two new concepts to bond families and schools:

  1. Parents are the primary teachers and the home the primary classroom. We need to understand how to improve, to support and then to build on each student’s family experience.
  2. Grade students primarily against the best in themselves with an “effort” grade, while maintaining the present achievement grade, primarily for colleges. Dr. Carol Dweck’s studies have clearly demonstrated that students praised for their effort outperform those praised for being smart.

This 2nd point is essential to creating the family-school bond. Over the years, making academic proficiency the purpose of American education has shifted the benefits of learning away from students and families, onto schools, colleges, businesses, and the education industry itself.

For example, “No Child Left Behind” is a bogus slogan. The concern of that federal legislation is how schools, districts, states, and the nation are doing compared with one another. The students are but pawns in this larger game.

The effort grade makes the individual student the primary concern of the school. It will motivate students to learn since it levels the playing field for them and puts them in control of their success. This will bond teacher, student and parent.

These two initiatives are definitely challenging and revolutionary, but having seen them done, I know they are both doable and richly rewarding. To do it nationally would create a new frontier for us.

I personally think this country is ready for a challenge like this that would recapture the American spirit, re-center America on the family, bring equality and excellence to our schools, and a new strength and stability to American communities.

Joseph W. Gauld, Founder
Hyde Schools